Stage 19, Part 2: Col du Galibier

We rode up, and up and up…and up.

Continued fromPart One.

Col du Galibier is a 17 km climb, though the first seven kilometers are more gradual (and by gradual I mean solidly around 5 to 7%) and lead you to the base of the real mountain. On a the day of a tour stage these first kilometers climb out of an Alpine valley and though makeshift villages of motorhomes and cars. All roads and paths are all peopled, and fanatics draped in the flags of their respective nations are huddled around small tvs and radios listening to the race. I can’t help but think: 1. Goodness, I didn’t know there were even so many cycling fans in the world! and 2. If half the population of Norway is here, then surely this must be the entire population of Luxembourg. Within these first kilometers, a few people on shiny road bikes pass us, but no matter: the Mtb badass factor automatically makes up for it.

But the truth is, we didn’t realize just exactly what we were in for until we rounded the corner of the valley and the zigzag path the road takes up the mountain made itself apparent before vanishing into shrouded heights. At this point the summit is still invisible and there is nowhere to go but up. We start climbing, really climbing, and I can’t shake the feeling that we must be leaving the surface of the earth. Riding clear into the sky. Are we on the moon?

Climbing an Alpine pass is not just like riding up another hill. It is ascending into the otherworldly. Air thinning around you, the altitude begins to take effect and every kilometer becomes something like a battle. Having stupidly not eaten enough, I begin to daydream about food: there’s a crushed coke can on the side of the road and for about a minute all I can think about is the saccharine, bubbly concoction. Soon enough I’ve forgotten all about coke and I somewhat dizzily muse about how I will eat pancakes for dinner. You know when you reach the pancake fantasizing stage, the small ring is an unfortunate but merciful reality. Slow going, it is, and even lacking pancakes, but knowing I’m following the wheel of the tour peloton (sort of), I have never been so happy climbing in my life.

Faint sounds of running water are just audible over my own breathing and the crank on the bike turning over slowly, methodically. We seem to be chasing a stream that in places dives beneath the ground only to reappear again a kilometer later, trickling out of  the mountainside. Counted among the plants hardy enough to grow at such altitudes are low grasses and small flowers, sporadic dots of color between piles of slate, effortlessly concealing their true grit with the façade of fragile beauty.

We slow down a bit to catch race report from a couple of die-hard Luxembourgers in a motorhome with a radio (who had also painted “ANDY! FRÄNK!” in alternating blue and red letters on a nearby outcrop). Pierre Rolland had taken the stage and the white jersey; a man reborn on the slopes of Alp D’Huez as yet another new hero for French cycling, if only for his temporary vanquishing of the formidable Contador. Certainly there is no love at all for poor Contador in France, as the mocking letters ‘Adios, Contador!’ painted on the road beneath us silently confirm.

Seven percent grade is still climbing, but it feels like reprieve when you’ve been riding the last several at nine. Reprieve is shortlived, however, and the last three kilometers throw themselves into wild switchbacks in the 10% range again. At once I understand completely why they call they call this kind of a mountain Hors Catégorie.

We don’t even notice it was cold until we realize we can see our breath, our suspicions confirmed by the sudden appearance of ice on the left shoulder of one of the switchbacks near the summit. I experience a brief flashback to the coldest ride of my life before the road mercifully crests and folds over the Galibier. From the summit the world opens up and our feet, and we can even look down the other side of the mountain, “the easy way up”, where Andy Schleck had his solo victory just the day before, Alp D’Huez looming somewhere in the distance.

“Heaven must be somewhere close,” is all I can think to say, followed shortly by “I think I’ll put on my jacket now,” my voice little more than a raspy exhalation formed into intelligible sounds.  the high is ultimate and everything: Altitude, adrenaline…the rush of having just completed the longest climb in France on a mountain bike made for eleven year old boys to huck off curbs as they ride to elementary school…as well as a whole new kind of respect for the tour racers.

We had made a pact before we left that we wouldn’t let the Alpine air get to our heads at the top of the Galibier and give into the urge continue on to Alp D’Huez, some 50 kilometers distant. Fortunately that was an easy pact to keep, though I did think: if there were a car and some food waiting at the top of Alp D’Huez, I might be more than tempted.

I’ve made some remarks before about the descents in the Jura being epic. Such remarks were lies. I am fully aware that ‘epic’ is a far over used word amongst mountain bike folks, often finding themselves lacking a better word, but I can say with complete confidence and fullness of meaning: Descents in the Alps are EPIC.

Both my breaks and my fingers (gloves…not…warm…enough!) being at minimal functionality, I was quite literally going as fast as I physically could. Apart from a few warm moments spent behind a motorhome, I ride down the mountain whilst alternating one hand on the bars and one hand inside of my jersey for warmth and trying to ignore the numerous bodily extremities in which I had lost feeling. Wildly unsafe, yes, but constant danger, bitter cold and Alpine highs make you braver, and I ride the descent of my life.

We did have to climb again to get back over the summit of telégraphe. I would’ve complained if I hadn’t simply been thankful to be warm. Once telégraphe was summited for the second time, the descent is warm and winding, woody and mostly free of cars. We didn’t end up taking any mountain bike short cuts on the way down, despite the somewhat haughty talk of it on the way up. In the interest of returning the bike in once piece this was admittedly a wise decision. Still, I can only imagine what wonders those unmarked paths hold. One day, I’ll be back. Me and the Alps are unfinished business.

Once back at the car, changed, and sitting eating the much anticipated recovery muffin, I realize that my face hurts more than my legs because I literally haven’t stopped smiling for the last eight hours. I also can’t stop thinking how lucky I am that my eyes have seen such places, how CERN seems so much more than 2 and a half hours away, how far I’ve come since my summer two years ago spent suffering through Quantum Hell, and how the poor craptastic tank of a mountain bike had aspired to more than it was ever, ever, meant to be. Running through my usual mental litmus test for happiness, I come to the conclusion that I’d really rather not be anywhere else in the world at this moment.

Especially not night shift at CERN. Which is exactly where, in an torpid tale of misfortune and woe, Daniel found himself five hours later. God, at least for now, I’m really glad I don’t have more responsibility on this experiment.
Although, for a few days my workaholic professor was giddily under the impression that I too, had pulled the whole ‘ride the Galibier and then go to night shift’ trick. Maybe I should’ve just let him keep on believing.

Vive le tour! Et vive le vtt!!!!

to be continued…

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2 Responses to “Stage 19, Part 2: Col du Galibier”

  1. Sabrina Says:

    🙂 🙂 🙂

    (PS – A crappy mtn bike sounds perfect for this kind of journey. Stiff as a road bike, easier gearing. Or something.)

  2. Le tour et la vie Genev/CERNois « the daily saga Says:

    […] year, the whole experience seemed larger than life itself: So much so that it warranted three gushing and fangirlish blog posts on the matter. Before then I had watched the tour on television every summer for almost as long […]

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